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Trip Reports
The Search for Queen Isabel La Católica
By John Zumsteg
Sep 13, 2003, 12:50

Convento MM Augustinas

On April 22, 1451, a baby was born in a small room in a small palace in the small town of Madrigal de las Altas Torres, in central Spain. Few Spaniards took note of the birth, though the baby was the daughter of Juan II, the king of Castile. No one thought she would ever assume her father’s throne. Her older half-brother, Enrique II, would surely inherit the throne; he would surely have off-spring who could inherit it from him; and the baby girl’s mother would surely have a son later, who, as a male, would be in line for the throne before the new-born girl.

All these things did happen. Yet the baby girl born that day in Madrigal de las Altas Torres did gain the throne. She became the most influential ruler in Spain’s history, and one of the most influential of Europe. She created modern Spain, drove the last of the Moors from the south, then sent Columbus on his way to a new world. She re-started the Inquisition, which formed a dark blot on Spain’s history for three centuries, and expelled the Jews from the country in an attempt to bring about religious purity. One of her daughters – Catherine of Aragon – became the first wife of King Henry the 8th of England, and her grandson became Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. In a time when women were valued primarily for their dowry, their political connections and their ability to bear royal sons, Isabel of Spain changed the history of the world.

In 1999, 548 years after her birth, I went looking for Reina Isabel’s birthplace. I found it, and in doing so, encountered one of the most extraordinary experiences of my travels.

Before that trip to Spain – my third – I learned about Isabel’s life. I wanted to visit places where she lived or were important to her. It’s not hard to find many such places, since the court of Isabel and Ferdinand moved continually; as a result, many towns and cities and places have a connection to the queen. But her birthplace remained a mystery to me. Other than knowing that Isabel was born in a palace of her father in the small town of Madrigal de las Altas Torres (“Madrigal of the High Towers,” named for the 48 towers and walls built by the Moors around the town), I could find nothing about where -- to use an old Spanish expression – her mother gave her to the light. Madrigal sits in the middle of the rich farm land of central Spain, about 3 hours northwest of Madrid; since we would be staying closer than that, in Segovia, we planned to drive to Madrigal. I would, at the least, be able to say I’d been in her home town.

About a month before departure, I re-read a section of James Michener’s wonderful book, Iberia and found a clue. Michener also went searching for Isabel’s birthplace. He knew that the palace had been converted to a convent, and that the residents of the convent had maintained some rooms of the royal family much as they had been when Isabel was born there. Michener wrote about visiting the convent; now, at least I knew that in the mid-1960’s, the building still existed and could be visited. But I had no idea what to expect; Michener wrote that the nuns with whom he talked thought the Church would soon close the convent because there were so few of them in such a large place. Like many countries, Spain often exhibits a relaxed approach to its history, so I could easily imagine that the convent had been closed and simply left abandoned, or turned into a museum.

Still, we would at least go to Madrigal de las Altas Torres and see what we could find.

Madrigal de las Altas Torres

One morning, we left Segovia, driving northwest. We got off the highway when we reached Arévalo, another important place in Isabel’s life, where she spent many of her younger years. From there we drove west and soon could see the town of Madrigal de las Altas Torres. Not a large town, it sits in the middle of fertile farms with beautiful dark brown soil and brilliantly green crops. Only a few of the town’s towers – the altas torres -- remain, and almost none of its walls. One could walk from one side of the town to the other in 10 minutes.

A sign with an arrow and the words, “Palacio de Juan II,” stood at a street corner in town; we drove in that direction, found a large deserted plaza and parked there. One wall of the plaza, next to a door leading to a courtyard, held a sign:

Convento Augustino,
Casa Natal, Isabel la Catholica
We’d found it.

The Palace of Juan II

In the courtyard I saw an open door to my left and started to it. Immediately, a workman in the courtyard called to me, pointing to another door across the courtyard. This door was a large, arched double wooden door, with a sign on it saying, “Convento Augustino, horas 1000-1230, 1600-1830, 200 pesetas” “Ah,” I thought, it has become a museum or some such. I tried to open the door, but it was locked, though we were well within the morning hours. I knocked, and received no response.

Then the workman came across the courtyard, saying, “Ring the bell, ring the bell” and pointing to an intercom next to the door. A push on the button, a 20 second wait, and then, a woman’s voice said, “Buenas dias. Que quiere, por favor?” (“Good morning, what do you want, please?”)
Now, my heart was pounding. My Spanish was far from fluent and I still didn’t know what we’d found. I managed to say, “Podemos verlas habitaciones de familia royale?” (“Can we see the rooms of the royal family?”) “Momentito, por favor,” came the reply. Several minutes later we could hear an inner door opening, then the bolts of the outer door being worked. The door opened and there stood a nun, who smiled and invited us in; “Adelante, adelante, por favor.” We entered, and were in the birthplace of Queen Isabel.
After the nun locked the door again, I said to her, “I’m sorry, but I do not speak Spanish very well.” She asked me if I spoke it at all; I replied that I do speak some, and that I could understand better than I could speak. She turned to my wife and asked, “Does she speak any Spanish?” “Not a word,” I had to say. When our guide asked where we were from and I told her North America, she laughed and said, “Well, I don’t speak a word of English!” This was going to be the true test of all those hours of Spanish lessons for me.

Our Tour Starts

La Hermana – the Sister – led us into the courtyard of the convent, a shady arcaded retreat from the hot mid-day sun. “Que bonito,” I remarked (“How beautiful”). I said to la Hermana that I thought few tourists came here. She agreed, and added, “Almost none from North America.” I asked her – well, I think I asked her; with my Spanish who knows? – if she knew of Michener coming there in the mid-1960’s and writing about it in his book. “No, no, nada,” she replied; she knew nothing of him nor his book.
Sala de los Embajadores

La Hermana reached a door in the wall of courtyard, pulled a huge ring of keys out and unlocked it. We entered a large, long room. She turned on the lights and opened shutters on the windows along the far wall. As light filled the room, we could see a beautiful wooden ceiling, and portraits of nuns along the walls.

“This is the Hall of the Ambassadors,” said our guide. “Here the royal family greeted official visitors.” Most of the room is original; only the portraits have been added. They depict residents of the convent who, through the years, assumed positions of authority in this and other religious places.

Our guide pointed out one portrait in particular, that of Dona Maria of Austria, the “natural daughter” of Carlos V. I’d heard this term before; it describes a royal daughter born out of wedlock. In those times, such a daughter, if left in open society, could marry some rogue, have children by him and thus muddy the line of succession to the throne. So daughters of royalty born out of wedlock were sent to convents, often at early ages. Many of them, with their royal connections and superior education, rose to positions of eminence in the Church. Dona Maria was one of these.

La Capilla

We left the Hall of the Ambassadors and walked to the next room, which connected to the royal family’s chapel. A large sarcophagus dominated the center of this room; in it are buried Queen Isabel’s maternal grandmother, the infanta Catalina, daughter of Juan II and his first wife Maria of Aragon, and another Maria, the daughter of Isabel and Ferdinand.

The room also contains art objects obtained by the royal family and the convent through the years, as well as several historical documents. Three large hymnals, hand printed, are in cases at one end of the room. At the other end is a case with the original document ceding the royal palace to the Augustine Order, that it could be made into a convent. The order is signed by Carlos V, king of Spain and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire during the first half of the 16th century, and by his mother, Juana la Loca (“the crazy”), the demented daughter of Isabel. Another case contains an order signed by Isabel herself when she was queen. Though our guide tried to make me understand, I don’t know what Isabel ordered in that document. It was signed, simply, “Yo, Reyna” – “I, Queen.”

Religious art and objects comprise much of the collection displayed in the convent, reflecting the dominant role the Catholic Church has played in Spain throughout its history. When Isabel was born, two groups disturbed that homogeneity of religious life: the Moors still ruled in the kingdom of Granada in southern Spain, and Jews played important roles in the daily life of Spain. Many Jews had converted, forcefully or otherwise, to Catholicism and, as conversos, attained high ranks in the local governments and the royal court. From her infancy, Isabel’s forceful grandmother (yet another Isabel) and her mother infused in Isabel the need for Spain to be purely Catholic, and convinced the child that she would be the vehicle for bringing about that purity. In one of Isabel’s first acts as queen she asked the Pope to re-authorize the Inquisition. The Inquisition’s purpose was to identify and punish conversos who secretly continued to practice Judaism. Little could the queen foresee that its purpose would expand to root out all real and imagined heretics, and that it would blot Spain’s history for three centuries.

In 1492, Isabel and Ferdinand took possession of the last bastion of Moorish dominion over Spain. After 700 years, the descendents of the northern Africans who had once ruled the entire peninsula were banished to a small area south of Granada. With that enemy vanquished, Isabel later that year banished all Jews from Spain, with the resultant loss of much of the business and financial acumen of the country. At a time when Spain would desperately need financial know-how – in 50 years the country would be the richest in the world as a result of gold from America – it had none.
Even those biographers of Isabel most complimentary of her cannot find good in her bringing back the Inquisition or in her expulsion of the Jews. She had been told from the day of her birth, that her life’s purpose was to bring religious purity to Spain and this was a step in that direction. But one wonders that this woman, who showed such extraordinary leadership and pragmatism and acceptance in so many other areas, would expel a people who had lived in and contributed so much to her beloved country for so many years.

We left the chapel, after seeing a hand-pumped organ – still operating -- installed by the convent in 1764.
Throughout our tour, la Hermana made great efforts to speak so that I could understand. She spoke slowly and clearly, using simple words and phrases. When she saw that I didn’t understand, she explained differently, rather than our approach of saying the same thing only louder. With her efforts, I understood probably 75% of what she said. The Sister clearly enjoyed what she was doing, and I suspect that it pleased her that these people from so far away knew of the convent and had made the effort to visit it. She talked about every art object and document in the rooms and about the use and history of the rooms themselves.

La “Escalera Royale”

As we left the chapel room, la Hermana said that we now would go upstairs. As we walked up the stairs, she stopped us and, with a large smile, said, “We’re walking up a Royal Stairway,” giving a humorous emphasis to the “royal stairway.” I could see she enjoyed her joke, and we did too. Then she pointed upward and said, “Look.” The ceiling of the stairway contains a beautiful carved wooden ceiling, in the mudejar style (mudejar refers to Moors who remained in Christian society and maintained their arts and crafts there). Juan II had this ceiling created by mudejar craftsman attached to his court; it remains one of the most beautiful mudejar ceilings in Spain, having been cared for by the convent almost since its creation.

La Sala de Isabel de Portugal

Upstairs we entered the rooms in which the Queen – Isabel’s mother – lived. The first was a small anti-room off a larger room. The larger room was the living room – the main living area – of Isabel’s mother, another Isabel, Isabel of Portugal.

The living room itself is quite large, with windows along the outer wall. It contains a number of art objects, again obtained either by the royal family or by the convent through its history. Isabel of Portugal lived years in this palace and so must have spent many hours in this room. Compared to many rooms of palaces of that time, this one has light and air, from large windows along one wall. At the end of the room is a large painting of Isabel and Ferdinand. Though done by an anonymous and not-particularly-talented artist, it shows the determination of Isabel that would later unite a country, drive out its mortal enemies and send Columbus on his way.

Our guide pointed to the picture and piqued my curiosity by saying, “That painting is unique in the world” and nothing more. I, of course, had to know why it was unique in the world and so asked her. She said that it was painted about the time of Isabel and Ferdinand’s marriage in October of 1469; Ferdinand was seventeen and Isabel eighteen. Its uniqueness is that only once did Ferdinand and Isabel have painted a portrait of the two of them together – this one. In the thirty-five years of their marriage, during which time modern Spain was born, the two were never painted together again, though they spent much of that time together.

Isabel’s decision to marry Ferdinand – it was completely her decision – showed her determination to do what was right for Spain. Her half-brother, Enrique II and their father Juan II before him, ruled over only a portion of the lands that today comprise Spain. Ferdinand’s father, another Juan, ruled over Aragon, the northeast quarter of modern-day Spain. Enrique plotted a number of marriages for Isabel that would consolidate his power, but Isabel saw that she could unite Spain better by marrying Ferdinand, the son of Juan of Aragon. She arranged the marriage. They had never seen each other when they met in Valladolid in 1469, though there had been consideration of a marriage between the two when they were much younger. Her marriage to Ferdinand, against her royal brother’s will, threw down a gantlet of resistance that culminated in a civil war when Enrique died in 1474 without designating an heir. Isabel and Ferdinand won that civil war and the unification of Spain began.

We moved into a small room off the living room, sparsely furnished and decorated. La Hermana turned to us and said, “Aqui nació Reina Isabel:” “Here Queen Isabel was born.” I could only stand there, feeling history all around me, feeling Isabel as if she were standing there with us. For me, this is history; a living, breathing history that makes one realize that these names we read of in our books were, in fact, living, breathing people.

For the first thirty days of her life, only the mid-wife could visit the infant Isabel and her mother. Disease carried off many babies in those times, so limiting contact with a baby limited the opportunity for contagion. The small birth room had a door with a number of opening panels in it. The nun showed us how Isabel’s mother or the mid-wife could open a panel, request something from the servants on the other side, and how those servants could then fulfill the request, leaving food or clothing or bedclothes in the door. In this way, the servants never came into contact with the mother or child until it was safe to do so.

In this room, La Hermana showed us the jewelry case, created by artisans in Florence, used by Isabel to carry the royal jewels when she became queen. In any other place, this case would have been in a locked case, with a guard nearby. Here, our guide opened the doors, picked it up to show us how much it weighed, and let me open the doors.

On the way out

Our tour was about done. Reluctantly, we left the birth-room of Isabel, and the living room of her mother, and the courtyard of their palace. As we walked to the entrance, I asked our guide how many lived there now; “Eleven,” she said. I wonder how much longer the Church in Spain can support such a place with only eleven people. The numbers of men and women entering the monastic life declines every year; a place such as this cannot continue forever. Yet in recent years, Spain has come to understand the value of preserving its history and has devoted previously-unknown amounts of money and resources to this effort. When we were there, workers were restoring the roof, so I’m hopeful that this cradle of Spanish history remains as it is.
As we reached the entrance, our guide turned on a light, stepped behind a counter, took out her purse, put on her glasses and became a salesperson extraordinare. The convent sells a number of small souvenirs of the town and the convent. I looked at the counter and said under my breath, “We’re buying one of everything they’ve got.” and we just about did. A book on Convento Augustino, a pitcher made in Madrigal, some small jewelry and handkerchiefs made by the nuns of the convent, some bookmarks. If she had it, we bought it. We saw that as a small payment for an extraordinary experience.

La Hermana opened the door and thanked us for coming. With my limited Spanish, I could not find the words to express our thanks, but I think she knew it from our faces. We walked back out into the hot noon-day sun of Madrigal de las Altas Torres.

We sat on a bench outside the convent in the sun. We agreed that we had just had the best travel experience imaginable. We’d had a personal tour of rooms that, as an act of love and devotion, had been maintained by the Sisters of the convent for 428 years. We had walked in the halls and stood in the rooms in which Isabel spent her first three years, and several years of her teens. We had felt the presence of Queen Isabel.

John Zumsteg is a Moderator and active member of the TravelSpain discussion group.

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